By Yvette Tan

Earlier this year, the Philippine Coffee Board, together with the Amadeo, Cavite local government, launched Pick Red ‘Fine Robusta,’ a campaign to encourage farmers to only pick red coffee berries with the aim of reviving and refining Cavite’s coffee industry.

Cavite has always been associated with coffee, namely the Robusta variety (Batangas specializes in Liberica, aka Barako) commonly used to make instant coffee. Now, other provinces share this distinction including Bukidnon, Kalinga, Maguindanao, and Sultan Kudarat. Picking red cherries is a way to give farmers–whatever province they’re from or variety they grow–and edge in a growing industry.

Picking only red coffee cherries may be more time consuming, but it will result in better quality harvest and will command a premium price in the market.

“Every harvest time, many farmers just ‘strip pick’ coffee fruits instead of picking them one by one and choosing only what is red, or what is ripe for the picking. We thought it would be such a waste to wait for a year to harvest, and only to not choose the ripe fruits,” says Pacita “Chit” Juan, President of the Philippine Coffee Board, Inc. (PCBI). “By encouraging farmers to pick red, the quality of the coffee is optimized and the best flavor and quality is assured by picking ripe fruits.”

What is fine Robusta? 

Picking only ripe coffee cherries means ending up with a superior, even-tasting product that can be marketed as ‘Fine Robusta,’ which commands a higher price than regular Robusta composed of strip picked beans of different ripeness.

Determining if beans meet the ‘Fine Robusta’ standard is fairly simple. “Since Cavite grows Robusta due to its lower elevation (300-500 meters above sea level), picking red ripe cherries is the first step in looking for fine Robusta. After processing them (wet or dry method), cuppers or graders taste the coffee and give them a grade. All those who score above 80 points become classified as Fine Robusta and commands a higher price in the market. All those who don’t make the grade get a price of commodity coffee which is what is used for instant or soluble coffee,” Juan explains.

Picking only red coffee cherries may mean more effort for the farmer, but it also translates to more earnings. “Robusta which does not reach (a grade of) 80 (points) fetches only about P100/kilo of green beans. Fine Robusta can command P170-P180/kilo,” Juan says. This is also a move towards disassociating Robusta with its reputation as good only for instant coffee.

The initiative was launched early this year in a Coffee Farmers Symposium themed Pick Red ‘Fine Robusta,’ a pre-Pahimis Coffee Festival activity organized by the Municipal City of Amadeo, Cavite in cooperation with the Amadeo Tourism Council and in partnership with the Philippine Coffee Board. Now, months later, the call has been met with enthusiasm.

Make people pay to help you harvest

Aside from listing the benefits of picking and selling only red cherries, the symposium also offered ways to make the process easier. Picking only red cherries is time and labor intensive, since it has to be done by hand.

Robusta coffee is known as the ingredient for instant coffee, but the Philippine Coffee Board (PCBI) hopes to change this by introducing Fine Robusta to the market.

An interesting solution to this is to tap into the burgeoning public interest in farm tourism and promote ‘pick and pay’ tours, where farms are opened to tourists who want to experience coffee farming. A tourist pays a fee, is given a basket, and is tasked to pick only red coffee cherries for the farm. The tourist gets a small token such as a small bag of specialty coffee, not to mention a lovely farm experience. The farm owner gets extra income from the tour fees, and has gotten free labor to help pick their red cherries to boot. “Many farm (owners) opened their farms to tourists and many of the farmers waited until their fruits became red ripe,” Juan says.

A red-y buyer, a growing market

Another benefit of picking red cherries is that in Cavite, there’s an organization that’s sure to buy it. “Red cherries, when milled, produce higher quality and so assures the farmers of higher prices,” Juan says. “Kape Isla Coffee Corporation (www.kapeisla.ph) buys the dried cherries and mills them for specialty markets.”

The company also buys peaberries, which they sell separately as they can impart a different flavor from the usual coffee bean. “We pay even higher for peaberries, or peabeans, as some farmers refer to the 5-10% of each harvest made of round whole beans… that we ask them to sort from the usual twin beans in one cherry,” Juan says.

With coffee being one of the most traded products in the world, and with the continuous growth of the specialty coffee market, picking red cherries is a smart way to benefit farmers while offering consumers access to a delicious cup of joe. “‘Pick red’ is always differentiated from ordinary harvests,” Juan says. “From down in Sulu to up in Benguet, we made this campaign so farmers can pay attention to quality.” (Photos courtesy of PCBI)

This article first appeared in Agriculture Monthly’s June 2019 issue.